Calls for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to approve electronic charts and display systems as an alternative to Admiralty paper charts before 2026
Currently, only Electronic Chart Display and Information Systems (ECDIS), which are used by large commercial shipping, comply with International Maritime Organization regulations as an alternative to paper nautical charts.
The announcement comes following the decision by the UK Hydrographic Office (UKHO) to withdraw paper versions of Admiralty standard nautical charts, thematic charts and Notices to Mariners by the end of 2026, due to more sailors primarily using digital products and services for navigation. Imray has said it will continue to produce paper charts.
MCA coded vessels, such as charter or sailing school boats, are legally required to carry paper charts as back up. Small commercial vessels, like fishing boats, are too small to carry ECDIS but also need access to official UK charts.
The MCA’s assistant director for UK technical services navigation, Richard Bell, said the UKHO’s announcement ‘represents a clear vision for the future of navigation, which will need to be supported by official equipment and data suited to the needs of the different maritime end users.’
‘We are committed to working closely with UKHO, stakeholders and industry to make this vision a reality. Close liaison will be essential, to ensure that the technical and legislative barriers to the proposed change are overcome in advance of UKHO’s 2026 timeline,’ he assured.
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The Royal Institute of Navigation is one of several organisations which have raised concern about the lack of MCA/UKHO approved electronic charts and display systems.
Paul Bryans is chair of the Pleasure Vessel Navigation Systems Working Group (PVNSWG), which has been working on this issue for the last 18 months. It reports to the UK Safety of Navigation (UKSoN) committee, which makes recommendations to the Government on safety of navigation improvements which may be required.
Bryans said the timescale for an agreement of an approved digital alternative to paper and for the manufacturers to have the updated charts and display systems was ‘a very tight timetable,’ especially as it was likely that any new regulations for “sub-ECDIS” vessels would need to be accepted internationally.
He highlighted that a lack of regulation in the UK leisure digital chart market means there is no uniformity, with most digital chart providers using their own colour palettes and subtly different symbols, which can make training more challenging. Issues like the inability to plot a visual fix on a digital chart also needs looking at.
‘We have already been working with manufacturers on what can be easily changed and what will be more difficult and we were working on a proposal when the UKHO announced its withdrawal of their printed charts and raster equivalents by the end of 2026. The move was not a surprise but the timing was a shock, and it has made it all the more important that an officially recognised scheme is in place well before 2027 so that manufacturers can comply,’ he said.
‘The PVNSWG will make a recommendation relating to electronic chart and display system standards for UK leisure vessels later this year but it can only be guidance as this is a largely unregulated sector. It is, however, possible that the same standards could be adopted as regulations for coded vessels used for charter and by sailing schools as it is unrealistic for them to fit different systems’.
The RYA has said it will continue to teach both traditional and electronic navigational techniques, although over time, emphasis will shift towards more digitally based techniques.
Andy Du Port is a Yachtmaster Offshore and formerly a Royal Navy specialist navigating officer and RYA Cruising Instructor. He stressed the need for sailors to continue to have paper charts on board
‘The firm advice to non-coded craft must be to continue having paper charts on board. Navionics on a laptop or iPad is very vulnerable to water and damage. Chartplotters are sturdier, but still at risk,’ he said.
A spokesperson for the UKHO said it would be working closely with the MCA ‘to develop an approved digital replacement for paper charts within UK waters, targeted at customers who do not have access to ECDIS systems. It will also be working with other stakeholders to support them in their transition to digital charting, including regulatory bodies, hydrographic offices, industry partners and distributors.’
B&G and C-MAP said it worked closely with the UKHO and other hydrographic offices across the world to ensure its digital cartography is always accurate and up-to-date.
Global head of brand, Tracy Cox said: ‘We licence data and work closely together to ensure our digital cartography is always accurate and up-to-date, both in content and in adapting to changing legislation.
‘The move from paper charts to a more digital future has felt inevitable for some time, and we see a lot of benefits for all boaters. Our latest chart formats and Apps can be connected and updated in near-real-time – something even the most dedicated and safety-focused recreational sailor will struggle to do,’ she continued.
‘As we move towards the 2026 deadline where paper chart production will cease, we will continue to work closely with UKHO and other governing bodies to work towards a digital future and ENC [Electronic Navigational Charts] recognition for recreational craft,’ added Cox.
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